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OPINION | AUDREY JIAJIA LI

Trump and Xi forge a friendship with a frightening edge

AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump talked to China's President Xi Jinping as Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrived for a state dinner at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9.

By Audrey Jiajia Li  

Despite his China-bashing campaign rhetoric, President Trump is enjoying the warmest reception of his overseas trips — since his inauguration — in Beijing. China is billing the trip as a “state visit-plus,” a phrase that has never been used for any foreign head since the ruling Communist Party came to power in 1949.

The two most prominent World Heritage Sites — the Forbidden City and the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall — were closed to the public for the exclusive enjoyment of the Trumps. China’s president Xi Jinping even hosted a private dinner inside the Forbidden City, the royal palace that hasn’t been used for state affairs since the last emperor was ousted nearly a century ago.

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The world may still remember how Trump blamed China for many ills in the US, from job loss to what he called the hoax of climate change. After taking office, however, the president’s tone toward Beijing has shifted dramatically. Coming out from his Mar-a-Largo summit with President Xi in April, Trump told reporters that they “had a great chemistry, not good, but great.” And yesterday in Beijing, he said, “I don’t blame China for the trade deficit, who can?”

If “frenemies” is the best word to describe the Sino-US relationship, “bromance” may be another neologism that best fits this “great chemistry” between the two leaders of the world’s top economies.

It is obvious that President Trump and President Xi both face a common pressing issue: a nuclear-armed North Korea that may be able to deploy bombs on intercontinental ballistic missiles. The two presidents have to work together to avert this imminent threat to the world. But beyond the need for cooperation, the warm personal relationship is sometimes less understood.

President Trump actually shares more values with President Xi than many observers might have predicted. And the affinity between the two men may very well result in a thaw in diplomatic relations, particularly on the economic front.

First and foremost, the two leaders have both built a strongman image in many parts of the world. President Trump often attacks the American political establishment, slamming the US court system as “slow and weak” and likening the professional civil servants to swamp creatures.

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To project the image of a strong commander-in-chief, Trump never apologizes and never admits that he could be wrong. President Xi, for his part, has just officially secured the position as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, with his thoughts enshrined into the party’s constitution and subordinates all over the country pledging allegiance.

And both leaders have attached great importance to strengthening their militaries. President Xi vows to build a world-class military by 2050 that can fight and win wars across all theaters, while President Trump recently broached the idea that the US should beef up its nuclear armaments to the level before a nonproliferation treaty was signed in 1968.

Similarly, both leaders are riding a wave of rising nationalism and fervent populism among their followers. “Make America Great Again” echoes the “China Dream,” which stands for a “great rejuvenation” of the country. Not surprisingly, both leaders have made clear who the adversaries are. In Trump-speak, globalization and immigration have stolen opportunities and resources from the real Americans. In Xi’s world view, a century of humiliation motivates a drive for economic and military dominance. Sometimes chauvinistic, the Chinese nationalists see hostile foreign forces everywhere, from the United States to Japan, from the Philippines to Singapore, from India to South Korea. Both nations have witnessed growing assertiveness of their governments’ foreign policies. Both nations have seen dissent met with official suspicion and police crackdowns.

Free media, labeled as untrustworthy “fake news,” are among Trump’s favorite targets. By discrediting journalism, Trump seems determined to usher in a “post-truth era” that features a toxic mix of direct falsehoods and shady sort-of facts.

There’s a frightening parallel in China. Although Chinese media outlets are required to toe the party line, there have always been liberal-minded journalists who could find ways to report the truth. But they have been further marginalized in recent years as the authorities openly call for absolute media loyalty. A number of international news organizations were not invited to report the Chinese Communist Party’s national congress, including The New York Times, the BBC, the Financial Times, and the Economist. Trump has publicly demonstrated his disdain for many of the same outlets on Xi’s media hit list. On Thursday, Trump refused to take questions from reporters, citing “the Chinese insistence there were no questions.”

Both leaders have expressed their admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin. Trump has consistently praised Putin for his strength, while Xi has met Putin more times than any other head of state in the world. During his 2013 visit to Russia, Xi told Putin: “I think my personality is very similar to yours.” China’s state-run media, meanwhile, have been long playing up Putin’s charm.

Expect the Trump-Xi bromance to continue. As his former chief strategist Steve Bannon said last September in Hong Kong, “I don’t think there’s a world leader that President Trump respects more than the president of China.”

Audrey Jiajia Li is the 2017 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF). She currently is in residence at the MIT Center for International Studies.